Van Gogh’s Frenzied Flowers, Starry Skies Thrill in ’Up Close’

"Road Menders at Saint-Remy" (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh. The painting was made in the French village of Saint-Remy, where the artist checked himself into an asylum. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art via Bloomberg

“Van Gogh Up Close,” a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, plays down the usual mythology featuring the ear, the asylums and suicide in a wheat field in Auvers.

Instead, the show brings us face-to-face with an intimate side of his art, and illumines Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) the fervent naturalist.

The somewhat unsurprising premise -- that Van Gogh painted nature “close up” -- brings masterpieces and oddities out of hiding.

Especially remarkable is “Wheatfield” (1888), a landscape on loan from the Honolulu Academy of Arts. It looks moist, almost teary, as if it were painted yesterday.

All the pictures date from his fertile, troubled last four years, during he would leave Paris for Arles, Saint-Remy and Auvers. In this period, Van Gogh did his greatest work.

In some of these pictures, which have the frontal frenzy of Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh is not so much making compositions but immersing us in intense sensations.

Van Gogh, a failed pastor and largely self-taught artist, seemed to be searching for something beyond the grass, leaves and petals, perhaps a source for reflection and meditation.

Solar Systems

He gives haloes to forms. In “Crown Imperial (Fritillaria) in a Copper Vase,” he transforms wallpaper into a star-studded night sky. In “Sunflowers” and “Grapes, Lemons, Pears, and Apples,” he treats still lifes like solar systems, their objects exploding outward; spinning out of orbit.

Vases whirl. Flowers ignite and rain like fireworks. “Still Life With Basket of Apples,” in which fruit twist and turn in a shallow bowl on an uneasy yellow field, suggests a lifeboat of huddled survivors adrift on a sea of fire.

“Quinces,” a mound of fruit, resembles nude, tumbling, Rubenesque bodies under a cascading waterfall. And in “Sheaves of Wheat,” the harvest’s standing pyramidal bundles, anthropomorphized, become a circle of celebratory dancers.

“Up Close” includes 46 paintings by Van Gogh, and although the works are uneven, the show really doesn’t need any padding. Why is nearly half the show devoted to Japanese and European prints and 19th-century nature photography?

Certainly the flat, shallow plane, delineated shapes and activated surfaces of Japanese prints heavily influenced Van Gogh. But here a footnote becomes filler.

Fields of Flowers

There’s also a photography section, a medium Van Gogh loudly dismissed. It forces unwarranted comparisons with his paintings. And the show’s last gallery, comprising a dozen fine European prints, would have made more sense as a prelude.

Yet none of this is reason to stay away from the show’s masterpieces.

In the naturalistic “Field With Flowers Near Arles,” Van Gogh conveys -- in the bruised-violet-gray sky, golden light, and thickening, gathering marks -- the heady moment before a summer downpour.

And in “Rain,” he pelts us -- puts us at the center of the storm. “Wheat Fields at Auvers under Clouded Sky” buckles, zigzags and expands, as if the landscape were stretching to greet the dawn.

And in the muscular “Road Menders at Saint-Remy,” line, color and the artist’s emotions interweave. Nature -- made personal; brought up-close -- is felt as a magnificent force. Yet so are the artist’s feelings toward her, which quake beneath the picture’s surface.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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